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“If a reader has to read it twice, the sentence has failed.” David Rice, editor of The Rathmines [School of Journalism] Stylebook (RS)
“No paragraph should need to be read twice.” Simon Jenkins, editor of The Times 1990-92 and editor of The Times Guide to English Style and Usage (TGESU)
“Care must always be exercised so that the language may be used with precision and appropriateness. Natural semantic change is very different from inaccurate or imprecise use of language.” Loreto Todd, editor of The Cassell Dictionary of English Usage (CDEU)
“Modern English ... is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.” George Orwell
“I know it’s no good hankering after the old nuances, but don’t you sometimes hate to see a good word going to seed?” Nicholas Bagnall, author of A Defence of Clichés and Newspaper Language, in IoS 14/5/00
English Like It Is is not a comprehensive usage guide. It focuses on changing usage (such as “like” in the title) and persistent errors, with occasional anomalies (see Miscellaneous Errors) included as warnings and for their entertainment value. The citations that illustrate the more than 350 entries come mainly from the four British Sunday “broadsheets”, The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, The Observer and The Independent on Sunday, and The Irish Times, between 1994 and the present. Eighty-nine books and other publications are also quoted for comparison, and 54 usage guides and dictionaries are cited as authorities or examples of obsolete or bad advice. Where American usage differs from UK usage, note is taken of the variations. Irish usage generally follows that of the UK.
Persistent and Occasional Errors
Many errors in word choice are probably caused by the resemblance of the word sought to the word that first springs to mind: decimate-devastate, fearsome-fierce-“fiercesome”, millstone-milestone, asterisk-Asterix, whetted-wetted, home-hone. The redundant “armed gunman” could be due to an unconscious conflation of “armed bandit/raider” and “masked gunman”. Likewise, the redundant “advance/prior warning” might be confused with “advance/prior notice”, and “added bonus” possibly comes from an unconscious association with “added benefit”. Some are likely to be wrong spellings (as opposed to misspellings) of homophones: auger-augur, bear-bare, born-borne, bloc-block, bough-bow. Others are obviously caused by an imperfect understanding of similar-sounding words: adopted-adoptive, affect-effect, connote-denote, diffuse-defuse, factious-fractious, flaunt-flout, dissect-bisect, flounder-founder. But most mistakes in vocabulary can be put down to ignorance of the meanings of the building blocks of language. “Hover” does not mean “loom”. A quest is a search, not an attempt. “Persuade” carries a dynamic sense lacking in “convince”. “Imply” is the opposite of “infer”. “Tight-lipped” and “close(d)-mouthed” graphically describe very distinct attitudes, though the former is frequently used wrongly for the latter. Rhetorical though the question may be, Fowler’s exasperated “What makes people write whom in such sentences?” has an answer. Writers who commit such errors and editors who fail to correct them don’t understand the rules of grammar and usage that determine how English is constructed, and they don’t bother to learn them because they feel they are unimportant. Rules and conventions (illogical rules that we agree to follow anyway) exist in order to provide clear communication between writer and reader. As many of the examples in this book demonstrate, when these guidelines are flouted, confusion ensues while the reader backtracks to puzzle out what the writer is trying to say. Editors: Nonfeasance and Misfeasance
[This sort of error] is now so prevalent in the newspapers ... it is high time for emphatic protests. (Fowler, MEU: “Who & Whom2”)
Why single out the newspapers? For two reasons: first, as Robert Burchfield pointed out in his Preface to The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (NFMEU, 1996), Henry Fowler, in his ground-breaking Dictionary of Modern English Usage (MEU, 1926), took many of his examples of incorrect usage from newspapers “because they reflected and revealed the solecistic waywardness of ‘the half-educated’ general public in a much more dramatic fashion than did works of English literature.” But perhaps more important, as the American critic Jacques Barzun said, “The predominant fault of the bad English encountered today is not the crude vulgarism of the untaught but the blithe irresponsibility of the taught” (“English As She’s Not Taught”, 1953). Because English does not have an official academy like French and Spanish, regular usage by intelligent and educated people – a fair description of those who write for and read the British Sunday “quality” papers and the Irish Times – ultimately determines accepted usage. With a combined weekly circulation of nearly three million, and read by and influencing a larger number of people who write and speak for public consumption and who teach others to write and speak, these five papers constitute a de facto custodian of the language – an quasi-academy – and an accurate mirror of its usage. Correct usage should not be the sole responsibility of the writer, who, hot on the trail of an elusive argument and concentrating on content, can often commit “slips of the pen or of the mind, to which every writer is liable and for whose correction before print he is duly grateful” (Barzun, “Beyond the Blue Pencil”, 1985). One function of an editor, after he has thoroughly digested a few reputable up-to-date usage guides, is to spot the unwitting error in form or lapse in logic with a dispassionate eye. The catalogue of glaring errors in English Like It Is, whether persistent or occasional, shows that many editors are guilty of Nonfeasance (q.v.), the failure to perform this basic function. On the other hand, every writer has seen his work butchered by a heavy editorial hand. Barzun went on at length about such “improvers”, whose intervention often amounts to virtual co-authorship or results in nonsense. This is Misfeasance (q.v.). The eminent 19th-century freelance essayist, critic and journalist William Hazlitt had much to say on the subject of editors, none of it positive, summing up: “Some Editors are scrubs, mere drudges, newspaper puffs: others are bullies or quacks: others are nothing at all – they have the name, and receive a salary for it!” These are Barzun’s “the taught”, who haven’t learnt.
A living language inevitably adjusts itself to accommodate the requirements of the changing society that uses it. At the beginning of the 20th century, for example, “restive” – from the Latin restare, “to remain” – described a horse “unwilling to go forward” (CED, 1901). Example: “Diplomacy, while anxious to do its best for a lady in misfortune, showed signs of becoming restive at this expansion of its task” (Saki, “Cross Currents”, 1910); that is, the Foreign Office dragged their feet. But already in 1922 Agatha Christie used the word for “impatient” – “Tommy became restive. The conversation he had overheard had stimulated his curiosity. ... he must hear more” (The Secret Adversary); and in 1928 for “nervous”: “Lady Tamplin’s remorseless cross-examination was making her restive” (The Mystery of the Blue Train). In a 1935 Edgar Wallace novel it carried both of these new senses: “They haven’t paid their bill for a month, and the manager is getting restive” (The Mouthpiece). Now “fidgety, restless” is the primary meaning in a virtually horseless English-speaking culture: “But both Basra and Maysan have seen heavy combat recently ... and remain restive” (Obs 19/9/04 p. 1.2); “Cameron cracks whip as Tories grow restive” (STel 9/4/06 p. 1.1); “to pacify its most restive citizens” (STel 12/7/09 p. 1.21). NODE (1998) notes: “The original sense, ‘inclined to remain still, inert’, has undergone a reversal.” “English Like It Is?” said one of my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) colleagues when I laid an early draft of the book on the staff-room table to invite comments. “As It Is, surely.” Not as surely now as in the recent past. The use of “like” as a conjunction was soundly condemned by Fowler: “Unfortunately few have observed like you have done. Every illiterate person uses this construction daily ...” (MEU, 1926). Sir Ernest Gowers’s 1965 edition (FMEU, often called “Gowers’s Fowler’s”) rightly mitigated Fowler’s pronouncement to “most people use this construction daily”). As late as 1991, CEU warned: “Like must never be used as a conjunction. It is incorrect to say: ‘Vicky does not work like her sister did.’” However, since Fowler’s time, the persistent use of the preposition “like” as a conjunction by responsible, literate writers and speakers has, ipso facto, broadened its function to preposition and conjunction. In 1996, Burchfield concluded in his third edition of Fowler’s (NFMEU) that the “long-standing resistance” to “like” as a conjunction “is beginning to crumble.” This resistance has now virtually disappeared in all but formal contexts. Likewise, the verbs “contact”, “funnel” and “process”, which most of us find inoffensive these days, were highly contentious when Barzun wrote in 1953 that they were “new, heedless, vulgar, and unnecessary”; “contact” especially “fills the mouth in a silly bumptious way.” (See Verbs From Nouns.)
Why is correct usage important?
When incorrect usage drives out correct usage, the language is impoverished through Contraction and Bleaching. For example, “beg the question” has a precise meaning – assume the acceptance of an unproved premise – but the term is rarely applied now to that concept. It is used almost exclusively for “raise/pose the question”. The proper meaning has been lost to all but the logician and the trained debater, and so the language has contracted through the loss of its ability to succinctly express the concept of “beg the question”. Bleaching has levelled “hallmark” into a synonym for “characteristic sign”, ignoring its meaning of “seal of excellence”. “Archetype” is now defined as “typical example” or “prototype”, obliterating the sense of the non-physical “hypothetical and irrepresentable model” that it was to Jung and his predecessors as far back as the 17th century. As in a workshop where all the craftsmen use the same tools in common, writers and editors have a special responsibility to keep their common tool, the language, in good working order by not blunting or breaking it through misuse.
Richard Marsh has been a freelance or staff writer, journalist, editor, publisher, radio presenter and EFL teacher since 1960, with poetry, fiction, articles and books published in the United States, Canada, Ireland, the UK and Australia. He is also a storyteller and tour guide. American-born, he has been living in Ireland since 1980. Citations
IoS - The Independent on Sunday
ITim - The Irish Times
Obs - The Observer
STel - The Sunday Telegraph
STim - The Sunday Times
(Other citations and references are at the end of the book.)
BEU - Basic English Usage, Michael Swan, Oxford University Press, 1984
CCEED - Collins Cobuild Essential English Dictionary, London/Glasgow, 1988
CCEU - Collins Cobuild English Usage, John Sinclair, Editor-in-Chief, Collins Cobuild / HarperCollins, UK, 1992
CDEU - The Cassell Dictionary of English Usage, Loreto Todd, London, 1997
CED - Chambers English Dictionary, London/Edinburgh, 1901
CEED - Chambers Encyclopedic English Dictionary, Edinburgh, 1994
CEU - Cassell English Usage, Tim Storrie and James Matson, eds., London, 1991
CGCEE - The Cassell Guide to Common Errors in English, Harry Blamires, London, 1997
CGEL - A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, ed. Randolph Quirk et al., Longman, London & New York, 1985
CLD - Cassell’s Latin Dictionary, J. R. V. Marchant and Joseph F. Charles, Funk & Wagnall’s, New York, 1957
COD - The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1995) (This edition has helpful usage notes.) COD 1976 - The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1976)
CPEP2 - Cambridge Proficiency Examination Practice 2, Teacher’s Book, University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, Cambridge University Press, 1987
DEU - Dictionary of English Usage, John O. E. Clark, Harrap, London, 1990
DTW - The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words, Bill Bryson, Penguin, 1984, 1987
EGU - English Grammar in Use, Raymond Murphy, Cambridge University Press, 1985, 1994
EoS - Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, Macmillan, New York, 1935, 1959, 1972, 1979; in private circulation by Strunk before 1920.
EOWD - The Electronic Oxford Wordpower Dictionary, Sally Wehmeier, ed., 1993
FAE - Focus on Advanced English, Sue O’Connell, Addison Wesley Longman, UK, 1999
FFC - Focus on First Certificate, Sue O’Connell, Nelson, 1987
FMEU - Fowler's Modern English Usage, Sir Ernest Gowers, Oxford, 1965. This is the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (MEU), often called “Gowers’s Fowler’s”.
FWNSDEL - Funk & Wagnalls New Standard Dictionary of the English Language, New York, 1959
GBE - Guide to Better English, Martin H. Manser, Bloomsbury, London, 1988, 1994
GE - Green English, Loreto Todd, The O’Brien Press, Dublin, 1999
G-EL - A Greek-English Lexicon, Sir Henry Stuart Jones and Robert Scott, Oxford, 1940
GS - The Guardian Stylebook, David Marsh and Nikki Marshall, Guardian Books, London, 2004.
GSwww - The Guardian Stylebook online at www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide
HDCU - Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, William and Mary Morris, Harper & Row, New York, 1975
KE - The King’s English, by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, Second Edition, Oxford/Clarendon, 1906 (described by Henry Fowler as “a sort of English composition manual from the negative point of view”)
LDCE - Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, UK, 1987
LGEU - Longman Guide to English Usage, Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, Longman, UK, 1988
Lowth - A Short Introduction to English Grammar, Robert Lowth, Thomas Ewing, Dublin, 1774
MEU - Modern English Usage, H. W. Fowler, 1926 (1994, Wordsworth, UK)
MTG - Mind the Gaffe: The Penguin Guide to Common Errors in English, R. L. Trask, Penguin, London, 2001
NFMEU - The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Robert Burchfield, Oxford, 1996. This third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage is a virtual rewrite.
NODE - The New Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford/Clarendon, 1998. Includes usage notes.
OCP - Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 1995
OED2 - The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989
OGEL - The Oxford Guide to the English Language, E. S. C. Weiner and J. M. Hawkins, 1984
PEG - A Practical English Grammar, A. J. Thomson and A. V. Martinet, OUP, 1980
PEG2 - A Practical English Grammar (second edition), A. J. Thomson and A. V. Martinet, OUP, 1986
PEU - Practical English Usage, Michael Swan, Oxford University Press, 1980
PEU2 - Practical English Usage (second edition), Michael Swan, Oxford University Press, 1995
PGWE - A Pocket Guide to Written English, Michael Temple, John Murray, London, 1978
P&S - Phrases and Sayings, Nigel Rees, Bloomsbury, 1997
RS - The Rathmines Stylebook, David Rice, Folens, Dublin, 1982, 1993. “Based on widely accepted newspaper practice ... to reflect the general usage throughout Ireland” and published originally for the Rathmines (Dublin) School of Journalism.
RSG - The Reuters (Handbook of Journalism) General Style Guide, http://handbook.reuters.com/index.php
SOED - The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1933
TGESU - The Times Guide to English Style and Usage, Simon Jenkins, ed., 1992. Jenkins, editor of The Times 1990-92, has been described in The Observer as “‘the acceptable face of fogeyism’, affably fronting a mindless campaign against modernism”. (Obs 17/12/00 Review p. 3)
TW - Troublesome Words, Bill Bryson, Penguin, UK, 2002. This is the third edition of The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words (DTW), 1984.
U&A - Usage and Abusage, Eric Partridge, 1942 ... (1994 edition ed. Janet Whitcut), Hamish Hamilton, London, 1994
V-PWG - The Vest-Pocket Writer’s Guide, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1987; based on The American Heritage Dictionary
WNWDAE – Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1988
WNWDAL – Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1984
Age (Stone, Bronze, Iron)
Albeit, “All Be They”
All Right, Alright
Among, Amongst, Between
Anyone / Someone ... He / They
Archetype, Prototype, Epitome, Acme, Quintessence
As, Like (prepositions)
As (conjunction), Like (preposition)
As If, As Though, Like
As Well As
Avert, Avoid, Evade
Bare, Bear, Born, Borne
Beg the Question
But (as preposition)
California , etc. (US state adjectives)
Capacious, Commodious, Copious
Cleft Sentence (see Singular / Plural Nouns and Pronouns: “What (All That) Is / Are Needed Is / Are ...”
Clichés (Round Up the Usual)
Compare To, Compare With
Comprise, Consist, Compose
Consider, Regard, Fancy
Contraction (of the language)
Convince, Persuade, Dissuade
Correspond To, Correspond With
Dangling Subject or Object Modifier
Decapitate, Sever, Dismember
Description as Title
Different From, Different To, Different Than
Disinterested, Uninterested, Indifferent
Double Past; Double Present Perfect: “I would have liked to have done” – see Perfect Infinitive With Present Perfect
Doubtful, Dubious, Doubtless
Due To, Owing To, Because Of
Each, Every, Either (Historical note)
Each Other, One Another
Effective, Effectively, Efficient, Effectual, Ineffectual, Efficacious, Efficacy, “Ethicacy”
Else (Anyone, Anywhere)
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Euro and Cent
Except (as conjunction)
Few, Fewer, Little, Less
First(ly), Second(ly), etc.
Fortuitous, Fortunate, Adventitious
Groups of People – Singular or Plural
Groups of Things – Singular or Plural
Gunshots, Gunfire, “Bullet-Fire”
Hallmark, Earmark, Trademark, Benchmark
Hang/Hanged/Hanged – Hang/Hung/Hung
Heave, Hove, “Hoved”, “Hoving”
Hence, Henceforth, Thence, Thenceforth, Whence
Hither, Hitherto, Thither, Thitherto, Whither
Hopefully (and other sentence adverbs)
However (conjunction, adverb)
Ignoratio elenchi (See Rebut, Refute)
Ireland, Britain, British Isles, UK
“I would have liked to have done” – see Perfect Infinitive With Present Perfect
Just Because ... (It / This) Doesn’t Mean
(These / Those) Kind / Type
Like, Such As
Loath, Loathe, Loth
Massage / Message (Medium is the)
May Have / Might Have
Million, Billion, Trillion
Myth, Mythic, Mythical, Mythological, Legend, Legendary
Nauseous, Nauseated, Nauseating, Squeamish, Queasy
Neither … Nor (two or more things)
Number (A / The)
Subject - Verb
Either, Neither: Singular Pronoun
More Than One
One In Ten
Per Cent and Percentage
One (impersonal pronoun)
One of Those Who ... Is / Are
Pan, Pan Out, Panhandle
As ... as
Between ... and
Both ... and
Either ... or / Neither ... nor
From ... to
Miscellaneous Parallel Constructions
Not only ... but (also)
Only (dangling modifier)
Perfect Infinitive with Present Perfect (“I would have liked to have done”)
Prefer ... Than
Preposition at End of Sentence
Prepositions - Miscellaneous
Prevaricate, Procrastinate, Equivocate, Fabricate
Race, Racial, Racism, Racist, Racialism, Racialist
Rather (“had rather” or “would rather”)
Raze (to the ground)
Reason ... Is Because
Rebut, Refute, Ignoratio Elenchi
Redundant (Pleonasm, Tautology)
Singular / Plural Nouns and Pronouns
Singular Nouns with Plural Forms
“What (all that) is/are needed is/are ...” (Cleft Sentence)
Sort (for “sort out”)
Spirals – Downward, Deepening, Negative
Star / Sun Signs
Mandative Subjunctive (“ask that it be”)
If ... Was / Were Conditional
Wish ... Was / Were
“If/whether ... be” and “be he/she/it/they”
“Talismen”, “Shamen”, “Walkmen”
There Is, There Are
Try And, Try To
Verbs from Nouns
Weave, Weaved, Wove
When - conjunction, relative adverb, quasi-relative adverb
Who and Whom
BEG THE QUESTION
“O shameless beggar, that craveth no less than the whole controversy to be given to him!” (William Fulke, “Heskins parleament repealed” - 1579)
“Begging the question” has nothing to do with a question in the usual sense of the word. I beg the question if I assume you accept as fact the basis of my statement without asking if you do. All authorities are clear on this: “to assume without proof” (OED2); “to use as a basis of proof something that itself needs proving” (DTW); “requesting an opponent to grant what the opponent seeks a proof of” (OCP). Beg the question is usually used incorrectly for “raise/pose/prompt/leave the question” or “demand an answer to the question”. It is so seldom used correctly that the proper meaning is in danger of being lost. The confusion seems to be caused by the feeling that a question left unanswered is begging for a reply. Guideline: mentally change “begs the question (of) whether” to “assumes you accept that”. If this makes nonsense of the statement, “begs” is incorrectly used for “raises”, etc. Also, the use of a question mark or the indefinite article – “begs a question” – should alert the writer or editor that “beg” should be “raise”.
The cost of the 13 cars was apparently a modest £95,000. Which begs the question: why bother buying them? (STim 17/4/94 p. 3.12) “Raise(s).”
Her question, the one never before asked, was: how do dogs conduct themselves if left uncoaxed and undisturbed in normal circumstances? This of course begs the question: what are normal circumstances? (IoS 22/5/94 Review p. 32) “Raises the question.” But it begs the question (of) whether modern dogs’ circumstances are ever natural.
Questions are definitely begged. What do pre-cancerous growths, for example, have to say about cancerous ones? And what about cancers outside the colon? (Obs 15/10/00 Magazine p. 35) “Are raised” or “demand answers”.
“Yes, we have had problems with this before,” said the waiter, begging the question of why the hell it was still on the list. (STel 1/10/00 Magazine p. 53) “Prompting/raising.”
He has been described in awe as “Oliver Sacks as agony aunt”. Which begs the question, who would want Oliver Sacks as an agony aunt? Mind you, Leader’s last book, Why do women write more letters than they post? , also prompted a few questions, the first being, “do they?” (IoS 13/2/00 Culture p. 13) “Begs” should be “raises”. “Prompted ... they?” could be “begged the question of whether they do”.
Crackdown on market researchers who beg questions and bend answers [head] ... a number of [Confederation of British Industry] members complained of a “leading question” in the survey which encouraged respondents to say they were in favour of the euro in principle. (IoS 9/9/01 p. 1.6) Yielding to the temptation to appear clever, the sub-editor responsible for the head has equated the posing of a leading question with begging the question.
“... taking half the brain out of an animal while keeping it alive.” Which begs the question, as does all of White’s work: why would anybody want to do that? “For two reasons. ...” (STel 16/7/00 Magazine p. 21) “Raises.”
Not, you understand, because he craved status, but rather to do something worthwhile “again” (which begs so many questions). (STim 12/9/04 p. 1.30) “Which begs the question” is the correct form to subtly imply that he had never done anything worthwhile.
“Wife? You want wife?” Huge almond eyes begged the question. (Obs 30/1/05 Escape p. 5) Context suggests that “begged” without “the question” is meant here.
Comments by Ms Royal and other socialists imply that the right is using her [older] brother’s role in the Greenpeace bombing to smear her. However, this begs the fact that her own [younger] brother made the allegation. (ITim 3/10/06 p. 1.3) “Ignores the fact.” The Right should be capitalised for clarity.
It all begs one key question: why? (STim 21/10/07 Magazine p. 41) “Raises.”
[James Joyce’s] Ulysses is indeed guilty of obscenity, “properly defined”, he asserts. ... “Properly defined” begs the question. People’s ideas of obscenity vary enormously, which means there can be no accurate definition. [in a review of James Joyce and Censorship by Paul Vanderham] (STim 1/2/98, p. 8.1) This is a rare example, in a classic structure, of the proper use of “beg the question”. In the reviewer’s opinion, obscenity cannot be properly defined, so stating that Joyce is guilty of obscenity “properly defined” demands that the reader accept that it can be properly defined, without the author’s having established that it can be, or having asked the reader if he agrees that it can be.
All of which begs the question about whether such roles, even if they boost women’s salaries, really constitute progress for actresses in the long run. (STim 1/5/94 p. 9.17) This is the correct use, but “question (of) whether”. It is not a question about anything.
And yet several questions beg to be asked ... (IoS 19/12/99 p. 1.18) This is what most people nowadays seem to think “beg the question” means.
The palm for outrageous question-begging goes to the Who Made God “argument”. ... “The designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.” ... but why on earth should we assume this? (IoS 26/11/06 ABC p. 23)
... the fact that Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar, while both Ron Howard and Mel Gibson have the shiny gold statuette on their mantelpieces, illustrates how Oscar gets it wrong as often as not. (ITim 27/1/07 Weekend Review p. 6) Although the term is not used here, this statement begs the question of whether – assumes everyone agrees that – Hitchcock was a more deserving director than Howard or Gibson.
... and prompting the question: what’s wrong with a soap and flannel? (Obs 19/9/04 OM p. 55)